On Phobias (Written for a theme)

The theme calls for a discussion of phobias and for several days I have been giving considerable thought to this matter. The dictionary defines phobia as an exaggerated usually inexplicable and illogical fear of a particular object, class of objects, or situation.

Exaggerated and inexplicable fears…hmm…what qualifies? I felt quite healthy as I weighed all my inexplicable fears and found them all wanting on the ‘exaggerated’ scale.

There was a time when I was very fearful of the common wall lizard found in Indian homes, usually in the summer time. That fear was indeed exaggerated and inexplicable, for these creatures are quite harmless and timid. I probably scared them more, making them shed their tails all over the place, than they ever scared me. But I was fearful of their fear response.

I never wanted to straighten paintings on walls since the space behind paintings was like a picnic under the shady tree for them! I tried to find all kinds of excuses to not make tea for guests at our home or do anything to help mom in the kitchen because it involved opening up kitchen cabinets and they were always scurrying away surprised and scared when I did that. I was afraid that in their confusion they would try to find their path to safety by using my extended arm as a bridge or falling into a cup or a glass I’d be holding. They were creepy-crawlies in the truest sense of that hyphenated description.

They kept me from sleeping in rooms where they were traversing the ceiling, chasing after bugs and they kept me from showering in bathrooms where I saw them lurking behind the door. I didn’t want to see them scurrying across beds, I didn’t want them falling to the floor with that sick and thwacky sound and I never wanted to stumble upon a lizard tail graveyard in any corner of the house. My fear was certainly exaggerated and definitely inexplicable. So I was lizard-phobic. Perhaps it was this phobia that drove me out of that country and to one where these creatures do not exist, at least not on the north-eastern section of the Atlantic seaboard of the US of A.

Does distance from a phobia make a phobia extinct? I wonder.

I haven’t felt an imagined shudder of a creepy lizard traversing my person in many years now. But I’ve heard the word “creepy” used to address all sorts of phobias. For instance, at a dinner with coworkers once I heard a young person say that the old person at a bar, who was trying to strike a conversation with her “creeped” her out. Another person added to this casual comment by saying that he couldn’t understand why old people did that. He added that he wasn’t afraid of getting old but he was deathly afraid of getting “creepy” when he got old. I suppose suggesting that he hoped he wouldn’t be making efforts to talk to young people at bars when he crossed a certain age threshold. It seemed certain people nursed “old people” (I see…old…people) phobias and certain others nursed getting old phobias.

Inexplicable? Exaggerated?

As I scan for phobias now I realize I am not afraid of spiders, lizards, sharks, clowns or dolls (although I must admit that a disheveled Barbie in a ripped ballroom gown and magic marker enhanced runny raccoon eyes, positioned by my daughter at the edge of a dining table, did always give me pause and caused an unwitting shudder). I can’t imagine being afraid of open spaces or closed spaces or doctors or nurses or needles…or wheelchairs…could it mean I am phobia-free now?

Or does the ending of the last paragraph with nurses, needles and wheelchairs hint at an unconscious consideration of a fear that is slowly uncoiling at the base of the skull, the amygdala perhaps, and emerging, standing straight, just a little every year?

I do worry about old age, not so much about getting “creepy” as I grow older and not necessarily about being closer to death as the years go by. The fear that could balloon and flare to gigantic proportions as the years go by is one of being utterly useless, helpless, hopeless and/or alone.

As I walked to work the other day I was listening to a podcast from a show called “This American Life”, hosted by Ira Glass. The podcast I was listening to was called “Home Alone” and in its first segment it talked about an organization that has the task of digging through the rubble of the lives of those deceased without a will, without a trace; those that passed away unknown.

The interviewer was following around a worker of this organization who was trying to find clues, any clues that would tell her who an old deceased woman’s (Marianne) family was. The worker once thought she had found a woman who knew Marianne. But all the lady said was that she had seen Marianne around and smiled at her a few times. The worker finally found some clues to Marianne’s house. Once she entered she saw a complete mess – scattered pizza boxes, unopened and opened boxes from the Home Shopping Network Channel on TV, unwashed dishes, unmade beds, a brand new dining table stashed under the bed, old magazines, some books and nothing else. Among all these things there were still no clues as to who Marianne’s family was, who would take charge of her body, her burial or who should be informed.

She talked to a couple of Marianne’s neighbors. The neighbor on one side said that Marianne looked very lonely and extremely unhappy to him. The neighbor on the other side said Marianne looked happy, contented and always made a point to greet him. Neither one recalled her ever getting visits from any family or friends and to the worker their comments about Marianne’s state of mind seemed to reflect more on their own personalities than on Marianne’s.

The interviewer asked the worker from this agency if she was having any luck and she said no. She said she saw this all the time. People tended to build this sort of cave around themselves, a fortress of things, more and more things. They tended to inhabit a space surrounded by a wall of things and not people. Never people. She told of how in cases such as these the bodies were cremated and the ashes left sitting on a shelf for a year or so for someone to turn up and claim them. If no one did then the county arranged for them to be scattered in graves that were simply marked by the year – 1969, 1985, 1997…and so on…all alongside each other.

The interviewer also expressed incredulity, “Didn’t she think she should arrange for someone to take charge of her things, her property in the event of her death?”

I was stunned to hear such a question asked. If we aren’t people who have millions or dollars or an estate to leave behind, how many of us pay any mind to what would become of our things if we were to not wake up one day?

Listening to that account brought tears to my eyes. It made me think of old age and loneliness and getting cut off from people and surrounded by random things…everywhere, in every corner of an unkempt home whose owner had lost all interest in its upkeep.

I thought of the unmarked graves and the unmarked, unrecognized ashes within. Of people who came and left without leaving a single trace, without becoming a part of anyone’s memories and recollection, achieving neither minor nor major immortality.

The tears were unbidden but they weren’t a lament about life; one may take one’s life for granted and death is inevitable, but don’t we all strive to be remembered by someone, somewhere?

If we aren’t remembered we won’t be around to feel any sadness or grief about it but that’s what makes this phobia inexplicable and exaggerated. The fear of dying unremembered, unremarked, as if we never existed.


  1. TO get you posting again, there are a couple of awards for you on my blog.

  2. Athazagoraphobia …. the fear of being forgotten, though probably not in the sense that you talk about ignominy in your lovely piece.

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